Please see first part for disclaimer, rating, warnings, pairing, etc.
Author's Note: Wow! This story has received far more attention than I ever thought it would -- thank you all so, so very much! All the reviews, faves, and alerts have made me unbelievably happy, I appreciate you all so much! They all have encouraged me to write this last part, which was unanimously asked for, at a (if you'll pardon the pun) maddening pace! Once more, thank you all so very much for reading my story, and I hope you enjoy this last part! ~fyd
It should have been of little surprise to Alice that the trip back from Underland was the reverse of her trip to Underland. Instead of falling down, she fell up, moving very quickly past everything she had knocked askew when she went down. She had little time to wonder how everything had been put back in their proper places before she was climbing out of the rabbit hole she'd fallen into what felt like forever ago. She looked down in shock at the blue dress she'd been wearing when she'd fallen in. It was in decidedly less than perfect shape, but at that point she didn't much care.
Stepping away from the hole to give Hatter room, she waited impatiently for his arrival. For a moment she felt unease stir in her stomach -- what if only certain things, certain people, were allowed to travel between worlds, and the Hatter was not one of them? But her concerns were soon put to rest when a familiar Hat appeared in the mouth of the hole, momentarily followed by the rest of Tarrant.
"A most delightful thing!" he said with a grin as he stood up, brushing the dust off his clothes. "Falling up -- what a novelty!"
Reaching up, Alice straightened the Hatter's Hat, which had gone slightly askew during his time coming up the rabbit hole. "The precise opposite of what happened when I came to Underland," she told him. "Now then, are you ready to go?"
For a long moment he stood still, curious green eyes taking in everything around him. The silent trees and flowers, and the dullness of it all. Odd, Alice had never really realized how dull the colors in Otherland was until she had visited Underland. Now everything seemed dull and drab in comparison. Then he seemed to shake himself out of whatever he'd been thinking, and with a smile, offered his arm to her. "Lead the way," he said.
Feeling happier than she had been in a very long while, Alice tucked her hand into the crook of Hatter's elbow and started off down the same path she'd run up days ago in Underland, but only a few minutes ago in Otherland. It was strange how differently Time moved in the two worlds, and how much different she felt in such a short time…
As they got closer to the engagement party that Alice had so hastily fled, the sounds of distressed murmurs and shocked statements, said in a much louder tone, reached their ears. Her hand involuntarily tightened on Hatter's arm, and he reached around with his free hand to pat hers, offering a nervous but supportive smile.
Breaking through the last of the foliage into the little clearing where the gazebo was situated was like stepping into a completely different world (which, in some ways, it was). For a moment no one noticed the couple who had just stepped into their midst, for they were all still too busy discussing Alice's peremptory exit from the festivities. In fact, Hamish was still on one knee in the gazebo, his mouth hanging open in shock, eyes almost bulging out of his head. His red hair, which had looked too bright before, now looked far too dull to her eyes.
Alice's mother, predictably, was the first to notice her. Offering a shocked gasp, she squealed out, "Alice Kingsley!" After that exclamation, the silence quickly rippled through the crowd as every eye turned in her direction.
If it were not for Tarrant's presence, Alice might have turned and fled again. She did not much care for being the center of attention, though now she realized that it did not bother her as much as it had before she went to Underland. Perhaps she had become accustomed to being the center of attention while she was there.
And, after all, the stares of impertinent partygoers was not nearly so unsettling after fighting and defeating a Jabberwocky.
Helen rushed at her daughter, plucking at the girl's once neat dress. "Alice, what have you done to yourself? Oh, only you could get yourself so dirty and disheveled in such a short amount of time. This will never do, no it won't. Hamish is still waiting for your--" Suddenly she seemed to notice that Alice was not alone, and once more her face transformed as she stared at Hatter with unbridled dismay. "Who is this?" she demanded.
Gently removing his arm from Alice's grasp, Tarrant took off his Hat and swept it elegantly around and to his chest as he bowed regally at the waist. "Tarrant Hightopp," he said. "A pleasure to meet you, my lady."
"I am most certainly not your lady," Alice's mother said stiffly. Turning abruptly from Tarrant, she looked back at her daughter. "Please do not tell me you left Hamish waiting to run off and meet -- him!" She once more gave Alice's clothes and loose, tangled hair a critical look, undoubtedly insinuating some things that had the younger girl's cheeks flushing bright red.
Alice wanted to jump right on the defensive, but managed to refrain. Alienating her mother at such a crucial moment would do none of them any good whatsoever. "We happened upon each other quite accidentally, I assure you, Mother," she said.
Helen's eyes narrowed further. "Come with me," she said stiffly. "We need to have a discussion."
"In a moment, if you please." Alice curtsied to her mother, smiled at the Hatter, then went over to Hamish. Gently taking him by the shoulders, she helped him back to his feet before giving him a polite but disinterested smile. "I am sure you are a perfectly good gentleman, Hamish, but I am afraid I cannot marry you. You are -- not the right man for me. And there is also that problem with your digestion." Shaking her head, she left him gaping after her as she went over to the twin girls who so reminded her of the Tweedles. "You remind me of the most darling boys I met in a dream," she told them with a smile. Next was Mrs. Ascot, whom she did not address quite so warmly. "I happen to like rabbits, especially white ones," she said stiffly. Next was her sister, who was looking rather misty-eyed. "I love you dearly, Margaret, but this is my life, and I would like to live it the way I please." Turning her head slightly, she narrowed a harsh gaze on her brother-in-law. "You are very fortunate to have Margaret, Lowell. Be sure to take very good care of her. I shall be watching you very closely." Then she went to her dear Aunt Immogen, who was still looking around for her lost prince. "Aunt Immogen, you must speak to someone about your delusions," she said softly and kindly. Squeezing the older woman's hands gently, she moved on to Lord Ascot, who was studying her with a strange expression on his face. "I should think you would have made a fine father-in-law," she said. "But I believe, instead, that you will make a most excellent head for my father's company. I should like to talk to you, as soon as my mother and I clear up a few things." With one final smile, she went back to her mother, who was looking quite shocked at her daughter's behavior.
"I believe we should have that talk now, Mother." With an innocent smile, Alice once more tucked her hand into the crook of Hatter's arm as they headed toward the house. The crowd parted for them, looking at her with varying degrees of shock, confusion, and amusement. Pausing at the back of the crowd, which had turned to follow her progress, Alice gently squeezed Tarrant's arm and turned around. "Oh, and one more thing…" She took three steps away from her love, hitched up her skirts so everyone could see her lack of stockings, and very determinedly performed a shortened version of the Futterwacken. When at last she dropped her skirts and turned back to Hatter, she saw several shocked and only a few amused faces. Tarrant was staring at her in awe, a soft smile brightening his face as this time he reached for her hand.
In Otherland, it was most inappropriate for a man and a woman to hold hands in public. Alice took his hand anyway, hoping she hadn't given her mother too much of a shock.
Helen reserved her comments until they were safely sequestered in Lord Ascot's library, which he had hastily agreed to let them use for their conversation. Once the door was closed, and the gentleman's footsteps had faded off into the distance, she spun to face her daughter with eyes wide and cheeks flaming with embarrassment. "Alice Kingsley! Whatever were you thinking?"
Alice smoothed down her skirts, feeling Hatter stiffen nervously next to her. He was turning his Hat round and round in his hands, looking like he wasn't sure what to say or do. Squeezing his hand carefully, she met her mother's gaze squarely and said, "I have changed. I am a different girl than I was a few minutes ago. I have regained -- well, I have regained my muchness." She smiled up at the Hatter when she used that term, and his eyes lightened a bit as he smiled back.
"Muchness? My dear, whatever are you on about?" At least the elder lady didn't look quite so apt to murder now.
"I love you, Mother. And Margaret. I love both of you very dearly. But -- I do not belong here. In truth I never really have." Letting go of Tarrant, she stepped up to Helen and took her hands carefully, because the poor woman looked like she was about to shatter. So much had been thrown at her in one day. At least Alice had had the benefit of a few days in Underland to adjust to everything. To Mrs. Kingsley, only a few minutes had passed. "I have found a place I actually belong. Where everything is as colorful and imaginative as I am." Smiling, feeling a few tears prick at the backs of her eyes, she whispered, "I have found someone whom I belong with."
Her mother's eyes flicked past Alice's shoulder and focused on Tarrant. "But dear, he's so -- different. And you can hardly know him. Do you know what he's really like? What he does?" She kept her voice low so Hatter wouldn't hear.
Alice felt a warm, wonderful smile blossom on her lips. "He is different," she agreed. "But in truth, I have known him for a long time. We have had tea together, you know. He throws the most delightful tea parties… He is a wonderful man. He is so warm and caring, and protective. He is a fiercely loyal friend, and would never turn a hand or evil word against anyone. And he makes hats. The most delightful hats." She remembered the Hatter's words when he first spoke to her of his trade, and softly quoted him. "The Hightopp clan have always been employed at court."
Helen's eyes widened slightly. "You mean Mr. Hightopp makes hats for royalty?"
"Yes," Alice replied. "I met the Queen he works for once. She is a delightful woman. Very kind. Has nothing but a kind word to say about everyone."
It was obvious her mother was working hard to understand everything, since she had kept Alice very close to home her entire life. It was easy for her to think everything her daughter was saying was imagination or a dream, but the Hatter was quite obviously there, quite obviously real flesh and blood, so she knew that somehow, as impossible as it seemed, her daughter spoke the truth. "And tell me something, Alice dear. Do you love him? Honestly and truly love him, with all your heart?"
She did not even have to think about it. "Yes. I really do."
Looking past her daughter, Helen addressed Tarrant, who was still standing nervously by, endlessly turning his Hat around and around in his mesmerizing hands. "And Mr. Hightopp, do you love my daughter?" she asked bluntly.
Alice held her breath. Though she could say with all assurance that she loved Tarrant, despite the fact that she'd only spent a few days with him. But she wasn't sure if he felt the same as her. Yes, he'd kissed her; yes, he'd invited her to stay in Underland with him; yes, he'd even come up to Otherland with her, but she had no guarantee that all this meant he loved her.
When she turned to follow her mother's gaze, though, she felt like the breath had been stolen right from her lungs. The look on Hatter's face, and more importantly in his eyes -- which were the most beautiful shade of soft lavender that she'd ever seen -- said even more than his following words how he felt. "Aye, ma'am. I do love 'er, more than anyone an' anythin' else." A hint of his Outlandish brogue had crept into his voice, though it was quite obvious that he was as far from one of his maddening attacks as he could get. She felt her cheeks grow warm as some more of that same warmth pooled in her belly under his loving gaze.
Helen's hands loosened in Alice's grasp. "I see," she said haltingly. Her gaze shifted from Tarrant back to Alice, her eyes slightly misted with tears. "My dear daughter, I had no idea," she whispered. "Are you sure this is what you want? Who you want? I only want you to be happy…"
For a moment Alice felt like a little girl again, when while her father was off on a business trip she would wake up to her mother's comfort. She wanted to throw herself into her mother's arms and cry once more, this time because she was so incandescently happy. But she was a lady now. And besides, tears would not help her mother let her go, which needed to happen before Alice could return to Underland with Hatter. "Yes, Mother. I will be happy with him. Happier -- well, happier than I could be with anyone here."
At that, a single tear trailed down Helen's face. "You are leaving, aren't you, my dear?"
A sudden tightness in her throat made Alice have to swallow once or twice so she could talk again. "Yes, I am," she said. "But please do not think my decision reflects on you or Margaret in any way. I love you both very dearly. But -- this place is just not right for me. I have always looked forward to the next great Adventure, and…" She trailed off, hoping her mother would understand.
"The next great Adventure will never be here," her mother agreed. Reaching up, Helen took her daughter's porcelain face in her hands and smiled shakily. "I think everyone would think this is most untoward, you going off with some gentleman it would seem you just met on the day you were set to be engaged to someone else. But, as little as I like to admit it, I have watched you over the years and known you were meant for something other than England and society, though I have tried so hard to conform you to the world you have grown up in." She sighed and pushed a lock of Alice's hair over her shoulder. "Despite how it seems, Alice, I have never wanted anything but happiness for you. I was hoping your happiness would lie here, but--" once more her gaze drifted to Tarrant and then back "--I can see it is not meant to be. As long as you are safe, happy, and loved, my dear -- I shall try very hard to support you in your decisions." She smiled, this time a little stronger. "You always have been just like your father, dear."
Alice smiled widely. She had always hoped people would look at her and see the great Charles Kingsley somewhere inside her, for she had loved and admired her father so. "Thank you, Mother," she whispered. Then, ignoring the fact that her mother was spotless and she was not, she threw her arms around Helen and hugged her very tightly.
For once, Helen did not seem to mind. She wrapped her arms around Alice in reply, running gentle fingers through the younger woman's tangled honey-blonde locks. "Such a dear girl," she whispered as they drew apart. "I love you, Alice."
"I love you too, Mother." Alice felt true peace settle into her chest, perhaps for the first time in her life. And, looking into her mother's shining eyes, she wondered just how much she knew and understood about where Alice was going. And, all things considered, she was adjusting to it all much better than she'd anticipated.
After her hands were squeezed one last time, Alice watched as her mother moved past her to stand in front of Tarrant. She solemnly gazed up into his wide, nervous green eyes. "You take good care of my little girl, Mr. Hightopp. She is a treasure beyond compare."
Hatter's gaze shifted from mother to daughter, and the warmly innocent smile Alice loved so dearly brightened his face. "I will," he said softly. "And she is, most completely."
Nodding to accept Hatter's promise, Helen paused next to Alice again on the way to the door. "I shall go give the guests our apologies and then break the news to Margaret," she said softly. "Shall I send Lord Ascot in?"
Alice managed to tear her gaze from Hatter's long enough to turn to her mother and murmur an affirmative, and a thank you. Helen squeezed her daughter's hand once more before she left the room, softly closing the door behind her.
For a long time Alice and Hatter remained silent, just looking at each other from across the library. And for the first time, the enormity of it all hit her, and she felt the prickle of tears at the backs of her eyes. She blinked hard to hold them back, annoyed. She had regained her muchness and slain the Jabberwocky, for goodness sake. What was this?
Suddenly the Hatter was there, his arms around her shoulders as he crooned to her in gentle Outlandish. Resting her head against his chest, her ear directly over his heart, she wound her arms around his waist, clinging to his warm, solid, real strength. How could she ever have believed him to be a dream?
"Ye dannae have tae do all this in one wee day, lass," he whispered. "Underland will still be there when we go back. Ah'll understand if ye need more time with ye family, especially ye mither and sister."
Alice smiled softly at how his accent changed words' pronunciations. "That's just the thing," she whispered. "I do not want to wait. I have lived almost my entire life believing Underland was not real, and I am afraid that the longer I spend up here, the more like a dream it will seem again."
His careworn fingers wound gently into her hair. "Ah'll always be here to help ye remember it's real." There was the heavy weight of a promise in his voice, as well as a loving warmth that somehow set her reeling world back to rights again.
She closed her eyes, inhaling deeply so she could draw in his unique scents of tea, fabric, and wood smoke. Alice could find no words to convey her gratitude and love, so she tightened her arms around his waist and sighed softly in contentment. She couldn't see the Hatter's face from her position, but she knew he was smiling.
A gentle knock sounded on the library door. Hatter squeezed her tighter for a moment, and she was almost sure she felt his lips brush the top of her head as he pulled back. Alice smiled at him and briefly ran her fingers under her eyes to make sure she hadn't shed any tears before she went to the door and opened it. "Lord Ascot," she said, curtsying to him.
"Miss Kingsley," he replied, offering a slight bow. "Mr. -- Hightopp, isn't it?"
Hatter smiled and nodded silently.
Stepping aside so Lord Ascot could enter his own library, Alice nervously gripped her skirts and said, "You were one of my father's most trusted business associates when he was live, Lord Ascot. I wanted to speak with you about a few things in his business before I -- leave."
The lord's eyebrow went up slightly. "And might I ask where you are going, Miss Kingsley?"
Alice glanced over her shoulder to where Tarrant had drifted over to the window to allow her and Lord Ascot a bit of privacy to discuss business, but so he would also be close by if she needed him. "I am returning home with Mr. Hightopp," she said softly. "Where I belong." She saw Hatter's lips curl up slightly and his bow tie fluff out just a tad more before she turned away.
"You are so like your father," Lord Ascot said, a hint of an amused smile on his lips. "Charles was always like that, looking for the next great Adventure. I am pleased to know you have found your own way to follow in his very esteemed footsteps."
Alice knew in that moment that she had chosen wisely. Of all the men her father had called business associates, Lord Ascot was definitely the best to take over and care for the company. "I am following my father's footsteps, after a certain fashion," Alice admitted. "However, I would like to discuss with you a way of extending his own, in honor of his memory and his work."
Interest flared in the elder's eyes. "And what, Miss Kingsley, did you have in mind?"
"China," she said firmly. "We already have a foothold in Hong Kong, and expanding the company's trading route to there would blaze a new trail that everyone else would be hard pressed to follow."
For a moment Alice saw a hint of her father's mischief glinting in Lord Ascot's eyes and smile. "Well, Miss Kingsley, I do believe you have come up with a very interesting idea. Tell me more," he said, stepping over to his desk.
Alice leaned over the map spread there next to him, and for the next hour they finalized the plans that would not only carve her father's name into the history books, but leave a hint of her own legacy behind when she returned home to Underland.
When Alice and Tarrant left Lord Ascot's library, it was with a great burden eased off the former's shoulders. Her father's company was in good hands, and her mother and sister's futures were secure. Now she felt like she could leave without being concerned about what would happen. Everything was in good hands.
Most of the guests had left by the time they reached the garden again. Lady Ascot and Hamish were nowhere in sight, which made Alice breathe a sigh of relief. Helen and Margaret were sitting in two chairs, Lowell standing next to the latter with a surprisingly protective expression on his face. Maybe he could be redeemed after all.
Margaret looked up when Alice came closer, her eyes drifting from her sister to Tarrant. Though they were slightly red, it looked like she hadn't been crying. Yet. "So it is true, then, little sister?" she asked. "You are leaving us?"
Alice stepped forward to clasp one of her sister's hands in her own. "Margaret, you know I am not happy here. The life of society, of being a lord or earl's wife, is not for me. I am happy with Tarrant."
The Lady Manchester shook her head. "I do not understand you, Alice. How long have you known him?"
"Longer than you think," Alice replied, smiling.
Helen leaned over to take Margaret's other hand. "It is all right, Margaret. Alice will be fine." She smiled first at Alice, than the Hatter, both of whom smiled back. "She will be happy, and safe, and loved. What more could we ask for, dear?"
Abruptly standing, Margaret threw out all her propriety and social graces and threw her arms around her little sister, as she had when they were both young. "I love you, little sister," she whispered.
"I love you too, Margaret," Alice said, hugging her back.
Margaret drew away, but kept her hands clasped around Alice's upper arms. "I will see you again, right?" she whispered.
Alice opened her mouth to respond, but then Hatter was there, his hands resting on her shoulders, a small smile on his lips. "I promise you will," he said softly. "I'll bring her back."
Closing her eyes briefly as if to regain her tenuous control, Margaret smiled and nodded. "Thank you," she whispered.
A few minutes later, as Alice and Hatter were walking back towards the rabbit hole, she looked curiously up at him and said, "I thought you wanted me to stay with you in Underland forever."
Tarrant nodded. "I do," he said. "But your mother and your sister are important to you. I'd be a slurvish man indeed if I took you away from your family."
She squeezed his hand. "I don't think you could ever be selfish," she told him softly.
"Aye, ye see th' good in everyone," he said fondly as they paused next to the entrance to Underland. He brushed the pads of his fingers down her cheek and smiled. "But Ah maun admit, dear Alice, tha' Ah have a wee bi' of a selfish streak in me, nae to mention me jealousy."
Alice smiled up at him and nodded. "I think I can live with that," she said softly, right before his lips met hers again in another kiss that made good shivers run up and down her spine.
Turning, they both faced the rabbit hole. "Would you like to go first, or should I?" Hatter asked.
"I will," Alice said. "But you should know that it is not easy going down as it is going up."
Reaching out, Tarrant secured her hand and smiled. "I have a better idea. We'll go together."
They each drew in a deep breath, then took the plunge back towards home.
Marmoreal was a more beautiful sight than ever as Hatter and Alice approached it. A flash of white from the balcony above had Alice smiling as she waited for the front gates to open and the wave of their friends to rush toward them.
Sure enough, only a few seconds later the couple was surrounded by Queen Mirana, Thackery, McTwisp, the Tweedles, and even Mally, who was making a surprising amount of noise for someone so small.
Almost everyone was plying Hatter with questions, demanding to know what Otherland was like. Only Mally went straight to Alice and clambered up her skirt, then her arm, to perch on the blonde's shoulder. "We're all glad t' see you back," she said, albeit a bit grudgingly.
Alice smiled at the little white Dormouse. "I believe you're happy to see Hatter back," she said softly.
Mallymkun sighed heavily. "You make 'im 'appy," she said. "Why, I 'aven't seen 'im this happy since the last time you was here, when you were a little thing."
Looking up at this, Alice felt her lips tilt upwards as she saw the brightness in Tarrant's eyes, the way his clothes had perked up and brightened, the way his smile seemed to light up the entire courtyard, brighter than the sun overhead. "How long were we gone, Mally?" she murmured.
Her little paw flexing on her hatpin sword, Mally scowled and said, "Three bloomin' days. What was up there that was so important?"
"My family," Alice said. "My mother and sister. I had to make sure they would be cared for before I came back to -- well -- look after my own interests, if you will."
The Dormouse sighed heavily. "You're too good for yer own good," she muttered, then skittered off to join the hullabaloo around Tarrant, who seemed to only have eyes for her as he answered his friends' questions as if by rote.
Alice smiled at him, the beauty of the White Queen's palace paling in comparison to his fluorescently bright eyes. The sun felt brighter on her face, the scents of the flowers around her grew sharper, and she could already taste on her tongue the tea from the many parties coming in her future.
Yes, she had definitely come home.
*~*Five Years Later: Otherland Time*~*
Few had noticed the hole at the base of a tree that looked like any other at the base of a tree on Lord and Lady Ascots' property. It was fortunate that no one was around, because if someone had been watching, they would have observed a man and woman suddenly appear out of the hole, both dressed in unnaturally bright apparel -- the man in hues of purple and turquoise and polka-dots, a top hat on his head, and the woman in varying shades of blue, all of them as equally vivid as her husband's.
They called upon the lady's old friend Lord Ascot, who graciously loaned them a carriage to use while they were there. Whisked away as quickly as possible, they were driven to the Kingsley manor by the Ascots' most trusted footman.
The man was the first to alight from the carriage; he reached back in to help his wife out. They shared a soft smile, then headed up the front walk arm-in-arm. Upon reaching the front door, the woman hesitated, uncertainty showing in her eyes. Her companion said a soft word to her, kissed her cheek, then reached out to rap smartly on the door with bandaged, stained, and bedecked fingers.
A long moment passed, the tension drawing out more and more.
At last the door was opened by an older woman, who looked only slightly more careworn than she had five years previous. Her eyes widened as her gaze shifted from the man -- Tarrant Hightopp -- to the woman -- her daughter, Alice Kingsley-Hightopp -- to the younger woman's swollen belly, in which rested her future grandson or granddaughter.
~End Part III~
Once more, thank you all so very much for all the support you've given this story, and I hope this final part didn't disappoint, and Fairfarren to you all till the next great Adventure! ~fyd